I DON'T EVEN KNOW ANYMORE

(Full disclosure: I've had a festival of bad movies (including Mac & Me and Battlefield: Earth, both of which I've written about) named in my honor and I recently watched Left Behind: The Movie in its entirety. I exempt myself from none of this critique.)

Of the dozens of things that drive me crazy about politics, the gradual assimilation of our political process with the worst aspects of pop culture has to rank near the top. Over the past decade, as we've transitioned from the postmodern/ironic fads (hipsters listening to Paula Abdul and wearing hideous outdated fashions, Hollywood remaking all manner of 1970s schlock, etc.) to some sort of bizarre post-ironic age in which it is no longer possible to tell the difference between enjoying something because it's good or because it's kitschy. It's the difference between Showgirls – which was intended to be a real movie and ended up being unbelievably bad – and Snakes on a Plane, the makers of which intended to make a movie as bad as possible, capable of being enjoyed only with a wink and a nudge. We live in an era in which taking everything that people hate about advertising, bundling it into a single horrific package, and turning the volume up to 11 results in the birth of a wildly popular cultural phenomenon. Basically, this:

Is your homemade mohawk serious or a joke? Do you actually like The Darkness and Justin Timberlake or are they just, you know, awesomely bad? Are you enjoying Say Yes to the Dress or do you find yourself explaining it to your fellow snark aesthetes as a "guilty pleasure" or entertainment-by-trainwreck? Does the stuff on our TV, headphones, and bookshelves represent the best efforts of creative people, the end result of which may be either good or bad, or something cynically designed for you to enjoy how bad it is? Is that viral video an actual flash mob or just a shrewd viral marketing campaign crafted to look organic? I don't even know anymore, dude.

Maybe this phenomenon doesn't bother you. Maybe it does. I would argue that it's detrimental but if and how people enjoy watching Firefly isn't exactly an issue of Earth-shattering importance. Who ends up in the White House might be.

In a year in which not one but two separate Reality TV Stars have been treated with the utmost seriousness by the Beltway media as potential presidential candidates – fortunately Trump and, apparently, Palin are unlikely to run but happy to milk the free publicity – it is hard not to see similar trends creeping into politics. Is/Was "The Donald" a serious candidate or was his might-be candidacy all a big joke? It's impossible to tell because there is no difference. The media and public see reality TV stardom as a perfectly plausible credential for the White House…because what happens on reality shows is "real", right? So why wouldn't the guy who picks the right apprentice or the woman with all that folksy Lil' Abner-esque wisdom be a serious candidate?

Even among the field of declared candidates it is somewhat complicated to distinguish the Serious candidates from those that would have been dismissed as charlatans in the past. James Stockdale openly laughed about how he had no business being in a presidential debate while Sarah Palin's camp got indignant at the mere suggestion that she didn't belong. Everyone laughs at Mike Gravel, Alan Keyes, Lyndon LaRouche, or Dennis Kucinich when they run, but no one uses the Sunday shows as a platform to announce that, come on, people, Michelle Bachmann cannot be a serious option in any electorate that hasn't completely lost its goddamn mind.

When Trump was badgering Obama during the spring – coincidentally enough, across a time period that began with the first episode of The Apprentice and ended with its season finale – very few things were as depressing as watching the White House and media establishment respond in earnest. "This is a publicity stunt, and who the fuck is Donald Trump?" would have been the sum total of my response. However, a media, political system, and culture unable to distinguish the charlatans from the actual players has no choice but to take the former seriously despite common sense and all evidence to the contrary.

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31 Responses to “I DON'T EVEN KNOW ANYMORE”

  1. Noskilz Says:

    For how one chooses to spend one's free time, it shouldn't matter very much(either something is worth your time for whatever reason or it isn't), but I'd hope that very few vote for someone as some kind of ironic joke.

    Isn't the news aspect of this more a question of playing to ratings and entertainment than some kind of MST3K-ish hipsterism? What I find most unnerving isn't that people seem to be in on the sort of joke a candidate like Bachmann or Gingrich represents, but that they don't even act as if know that there is one.

  2. Andrew Says:

    I didn't think James Stockdale was actually mocking himself. I had read that when asked about the debate, he would point out that he intended to use "Who am I?" as a rhetorical lead-in, but the audience took it as a joke and so that is what it's remembered as.

  3. A Says:

    I’m still reveling in the fact that Michelle Bachman is proud to come from John Wayne GACY’s home town. (Yes the serial Killer, not to be confused with Marion Morisson, the actor who went by the stage name John Wayne.)

  4. Jude Says:

    I feel you, but you're operating under the assumption that the national press gives a happy monkey fuck about things like "facts" and "the good of the country." Nope. They care about eyeballs on screens and the attendant advertising revenue. It's not that they're unable to tell the charlatans from the actual players; it's that they have every financial incentive not to do so. If I may dust off an Upton Sinclair chestnut: ""It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

  5. acer Says:

    Bachmann is the candidate of "real American" know-nothings who detest everything coastal. If someone endorses her, at least I know where they're coming from. Same with Romman/Huntsney (Wall Street/Club For Growth "realist") or Paul (the redneck/Reddit anti-gumbit coalition).

    Palin and Trump are closer to what you're talking about. They're famous for being famous. They trash-talk Obama like wrestlers (and, in Palin's case, whine pathetically about being persecuted) to stay relevant, but they represent nothing in American culture save naked narcissism and greed.

    I'm a bit more sympathetic to ironic hipsters than most are. If someone manages to enjoy spirit-leeches like Trump and Palin ironically, I'm sure they're having more fun than I am fuming about them. They've decided the national decline (like the cravenness of the entertainment business) is irreversable and decided to enjoy it for the LULZ. I disagree, but I'm running out of arguments.

    Mark Ames has a good rant against "smart-wing" hipster impotence at eXiled.

  6. c u n d gulag Says:

    I keep telling people that "Idiocracy" is a 'future documentary.'

    Kind of like "1984" turned out to have been a work of 'future non-fiction.'

  7. acer Says:

    The link:
    http://exiledonline.com/the-rally-to-restore-vanity-generation-x-celebrates-its-homeric-struggle-against-lameness/

    Fuck E.A. Hanks!

  8. anotherbozo Says:

    Amen to Jude.

    I'd only want to point out what was a point of the 70s "human potential" movement, that most of us don't experience our experience, just some mediated, processed version of experience, which we think we like for itself but only value symbolically. We surround ourselves with symbols of status and cultural identity and /or wear them like badges, and then think that if our lives feel empty it must be because we need more symbols. The problem is that experience is fugitive but symbols can stick around forever, so we think they're worth more.

    Enter Sarah Palin. She makes a certain part of the populace feel good about themselves e.g., (it's OK to be ignorant) and they like identifying. Ditto Trump. Why, he's a billionaire, just ask him. Our lives can't be empty while we cling to those symbols, who reflect illusions we want to believe. When everything is symbol to begin with, what does it matter that one comes from the politcal sphere and another from "reality" TV? They're just shadows on the screen, bumper stickers and identification badges, symbolic furniture for our empty minds. Part of us knows they're only that, that they won't, or can't, really change anything, and that's when the irony comes in.

    This doesn't have to be, but we seem to be growing further away from the alternative, not closer. The culture wants and needs us as symbol collectors, not thoughtful and reflective humans who try to square our experience with our choice of leader. But y'all know that.

  9. Tim H. Says:

    About Kucinich, remember how relieved the media was to find out his views on UFOs? They could then present him as ridiculous, clearing the way for a business as usual candidate.

  10. Mr. Prosser Says:

    I think this is one of the best discussions I've read at this site. I'm 64 yoa and have had these thoughts since 1969 when I came back from VN. Jude and anotherbozo, in my opinion, have summed up the progression of the last 40 years and acer, thanks for the link, I'll need to read Amees

  11. Mr. Prosser Says:

    By the way, William Gibson summed up the whole zeitgeist in Pattern Recognition.

  12. Morbo Says:

    The article acer linked to was the first thing I thought of reading this post as well. About the worst thing one can be these days is earnest.

  13. Personal Failure Says:

    Yeah, I watched Idiocracy and thought, "That is not funny."

    I don't have an ironic impulse to vote for Palin. (I do watch Syfy original movies precisely for the bad, I admit.) My impulse to vote for Palin or Bachmann falls under the heading as the urge I get to jump whenever I'm really far off the ground. I don't know where that impulse comes from, but I can't help visualizing myself taking the leap for no reason at all.

    Obviously, I've never actually done it, so I don't think I'll be voting for Crazy Thing 1 or 2. I'll just think about it really hard.

  14. Monkey Business Says:

    …but no one uses the Sunday shows as a platform to announce that, come on, people, Michelle Bachmann cannot be a serious option in any electorate that hasn't completely lost its goddamn mind.

    This is where this idea falls apart.

    We have a Democratic party that has spent the last thirty years moving steadily right, to the point where anyone that would have been to the left of Nixon is now a Democrat, and in doing so has become completely spineless and merely the slightly more tolerable douche milkshake versus the Republican shit sandwich.

    The Republican party has gone from being somewhat principled to almost completely overrun with arguably the worst slice of the American electorate: old, scared, white people. Not only that, but they've completely surrendered to orthodoxy to the point where politically impossible things are now litmus tests, and compromise is a treasonous offense.

    This country has gone mad, and without some kind of movement will either fragment into separate country states like Europe, or become some kind of feudal state.

  15. bb in GA Says:

    @MBiz

    He missed a little, but still possible…
    it
    "Russian Predicts U.S. Breakup by 2010"

    http://www.politicsdaily.com/2008/12/29/russian-predicts-u-s-breakup-by-2010/

    "Panarin says that the odds are better than even that the U.S. will not make it through the next election cycle. 'There's a 55-45% chance that a disintegration will occur,' he predicts. [bb - that'd be 2010] And the factors which Panarin says will precipitate the breakup read like a list of the most pressing and contentious issues that have vexed the nation for the past 15-20 years: mass immigration; economic decline; and moral degradation.

    These factors will combine to spark a civil war in the U.S., Panarin says, dissolving the country into six regional superstates that will in turn be incorporated into neighboring powers and rivals. California and the mountain west will become part of or be heavily influenced by China, the upper Midwest will be scooped up by Canada, Texas and the deep South will go to Mexico, and the Atlantic seaboard states will form a group that will align with Europe. That leaves Hawaii and Alaska, which Panarin says will become parts of China and Russia, respectively."

    Mr. Panarin does not seem to understand Texas history. There will be mounds of dead Texans before that happens. Still possible though…

    //bb

  16. Geds Says:

    http://exiledonline.com/the-rally-to-restore-vanity-generation-x-celebrates-its-homeric-struggle-against-lameness/

    Really? The only way that article is even worth considering is if it's some sort of attempt at an ironic, postmodern deconstruction of the self-aware ironic hipster culture.

    Either that or it's the work of someone who literally only hangs out with and knows hipster douchebags or assumes everyone who isn't him is, in fact, a hipster douchebag.

    Number one, claiming that Liberalism is a movement that's been around for a century indicates a complete lack of, well, knowledge. Number two, who the fuck is EA Hanks and why do I care what she says or does? Number three, while I found the Rally to Restore Sanity disappointing, it was always going to be disappointing. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are entertainers who filled their stage with entertainers. They aren't politicians and they aren't magicians. They said, "I'll bet we can get more people to come to Washington and celebrate togetherness than Glenn Beck could get to come to Washington and incite to more fear and hatred." And they did exactly that. Quite successfully. And there were more than 150,000 people who showed up.

    Liberalism isn't in trouble in America. Liberal politics sure are, but that's a totally different problem with a totally different set of solutions.

    The big problem is that the hipster douchebags are the fundamentalist Christianity of the Left. They're a vocal minority with an overinflated sense of entitlement and self-importance. They tend to congregate to the same place as other hipster douchebags and offer a self-reinforcing culture. They're also media savvy, so they create an environment where there are hipsters and anti-hipsters and they're all ironically arguing to see who is properly hipster enough.

    The solution to the problem is simple: ignore them. They won't go away, but if you ignore them you realize that they really aren't an all-powerful subculture. They're just sad people who wear tight jeans and listen to shitty music.

  17. Hazy Davy Says:

    True, Ed. It's as if politics is magic, where the key is misdirection and managing what's expected.

    - Celebrity = politician
    - A key election technique is to bait the base and ensure that the discussion focuses around issues you can control, rather than issues that matter
    - One candidate can have a plank that involves overturning law, and the general populace believes they have as much analytical capability as past Supreme Courts, as evidenced by the fact that they're able to vote on American Idol

    That said, I wonder whether stupidity has always been equally present, but is now more widely promulgated. I hope that's the case.

  18. Maren Says:

    As a Californian, I've already seen what happens when people vote ironically — six years of Government by the Terminator. Haha, isn't it hilarious that Conan the Barbarian is our Governor??

    Now our budget is shredded and our state collapsing. Thanks, ironic voters!

    (And hey, who puts Firefly in company with reality shows and intentionally/accidentally terrible movies?)

  19. acer Says:

    @Maren:
    With no respect to the Adulternator, he wasn't in government in 1978. Prop 13 fucked California, once and apparently forever.

    @Geds
    I enjoyed Ames's piece as a rant against the weak minds of my generation who take pride when they hear that irritating Yeats quote about the best lacking all conviction. They are disproportionately influential and their smugness is quite toxic. Some liberals vote, organize and stand with the unions in Wisconsin. The "liberals" that don't need a swift kick in the ass.

  20. don Says:

    "no one uses the Sunday shows as a platform to announce that, come on, people, Michelle Bachmann cannot be a serious option in any electorate that hasn't completely lost its goddamn mind." That's because there's a piece of electorate out there that has in fact completely lost its goddamn mind.

    Acer, thanks for the Ames link, which led to the EA Hanks link. I had no idea Tom Hanks had raised such a whiny selfcentered baby. Twenty-seven fucking years old and she's just had it with the glacial pace of change? Fuck off. Sincerely.

    To Ged – to me the Ames article wasn't so much about the "hipster subculture" of tight jeans and shitty music, which is a quite specific outward expression of identity. It was about a much broader, more or less generational detachment, a refusal to look at any part of the world except through a film of easy and unearned ennui. I hate to say it but I think it might have started when punk rock had sex with the me generation. But it's moved well beyond being identified with any particular music or fashion.

  21. ladiesbane Says:

    It kills me not to post my extended dance remix on reality TV, Harlan Ellison's "The Glass Teat", and why beta-hipsters secretly love their mohawks even when they know they are risible. The Cool Kid Napoleonic Code is a hobby of mine. But I'll spare you.

    The key point: Republicans have no sense of the ridiculous or sense of humor. They used to, and kept it a secret, because earnest humorlessness respects the Emo Right's sensitivities, and reinforces the Right's tendency to fall in line and close ranks. (Democrats, prone to mockery and wonk, offer no unified support and are unable to accomplish much, no matter how clever and special and righteous we feel. Note the way Democrats rallied behind Obama during the health care push. Go Team!)

    Most of the reactionary Republicans I've known are deeply sentimental about our nation, flag, military, and ideals. This makes them resent the flippancy of the Left, and makes them confuse dissent with disloyalty. This is what prevents them from having a sense of perspective, or any sense of humor. (We have Matt Bors, they have Mallard Fillmore; nuff sed.) This also makes the Right easy prey to manipulators within their own party. Old school reptiles like Gingrich, who actually knew their jobs but sneered at their populace behind closed doors, are on their way out because of it. Enter the New Idiots, who are starry-eyed idealists, but don't know the boundaries of the positions for which they are running, much less the Constitution, our laws, or the history behind them.

    Michele Bachmann, for all she is unbright and unintuitive, is a true believer. This sparks the Right's fervor. She is Patty Simcox from the movie "Grease." The public may not know the difference between deficit and debt, but it can read the sincerity in her beady, glassy, unblinking eyes. She may be rotten at math, ignorant of history, confused on the facts, and so scientifically illiterate that she pushes for Creationism to be taught in schools, but she is deeply sincere. She is pretty, self-righteous, earnest, and ignorant, just the way the Right likes its women. She is Palin without the wink.

  22. grumpygradstudent Says:

    I will admit that I want Bachmann and Palin to win the primary, both because their stupidity would be entertaining and also because they would certainly lose to Obama. Is that bad? If that's wrong, lord, I don't wanna be right!

  23. PWL Says:

    Well, this is what happens when you have a culture that is both being Dumbed Down and overfed with stimuli–y'know, Marshall McLuhan was right when he said "The medium is the message."

    So the ultimate result is what we see now: boredom, jadedness, "irony,"and fatuousness–an inability to take anything seriously, or to give serious thought to anything, at a time when America is seriously in danger of sliding into the Great Pooper of History…

  24. c u n d gulag Says:

    ladiesbane,
    I'd post my interpretive dance version of Neil Postman's "Amusing Ourselves to Death," but people actually almost died laughing at me, and forced me to erase it to save lives.

    "The Glass Teat" was great!

  25. fuzzbuzz215 Says:

    Ed, you should read Taibbi's work on Bachmann in Rollingstone (1134/1135). I wonder what you would think of his observations, especially the idea that she may have a credible chance at the White House.

  26. Nunya Says:

    @ Geds – Welcome to the "Git off my lawn" old man club. I nominate you as our president.

  27. ladiesbane Says:

    c u n d gulag: oh, come on! Postman's excellent. If you don't do your interpretive number, I'll have no excuse to pull out my Aldous Huxley mime. (It slays them at the Elks' Club.)

  28. Black_Rose Says:

    i think gordon currie did a good job playing nicolae carpathia; other than that, the movie sucked.

  29. marcus Says:

    Why, exactly, is Super Important Political News In Washington and other political nonsense more important to you than low-brow culture? Why do you criticize the low-brow so very much? Don't you realize you've fallen into a basic human mode of thinking when you do so? How about re-reading your article about the guy in an unknown band who almost died, it's saying the OPPOSITE of this article. You can't have them both, you only like the other guy's idea because you know him. Tell me exactly in what ways is his band less low-brow than Jersey Shore? Just cause it isn't famous? Do dive bars get a free pass for being awesome?

    Hypocrite.

  30. marcus Says:

    Further clarification of my questioning of your standards: In what way exactly is Jersey Shore low-brow and Obama not low-brow. Please describe in detail. Is he a charlatan or not? Do you rational reasons for saying yes OR no.

  31. robotsdancingalone Says:

    Lots of good points. However, Justin Timberlake: he's a fucking hero. FutureSex is a glorious album.